Little windows

As K and I are preparing for a long holiday in Spain, we decided  to watch a slideshow of K’s parents on a road trip around Europe in the late 1970s. It was the real deal: magazines of slides, stored in metal and plastic boxes, labelled in pencil, the whirrr of the fan, the heat from the globe, the k-clunk-click of the slide advance. Not to mention some awesome 70’s fashion. Watching slides in a projector is a considerably different experience to browsing digital photos. Sometimes I look through my Lightroom catalogue at the thousands of photos that I have taken during overseas travel over the past few years, but looking at a photo on my computer screen never evokes the feeling of a slide projected in a dark room from a tungsten globe. It’s not that I don’t feel nostalgic looking at my photos – of course I do. Looking at the images can’t help but force me to remember details of the travel experience – but there is something in the physicality of a slide that makes it different. Each slide is a unique object that can be held up to the light – a miniature window to another time and place. Each little window is “real”. Each little window says: “this is proof”. Slides degrade over time, and the damage and disintegration is a clue to it’s age – older slides feel old because they are old. Even the technological limitations of photo processing in each era – the colour balance, the roughness of the edges, the sharpness of the image – mark each photo as from that particular time. The audible click and visual shift from one slide to the next marks a space in time – like the gutter in a comic, this gap between images says: “then this happened”. Digital photos have none of these qualities – they are clear, sharp, clean, ageless. You can’t hold them up, hand them around, flip them over to look for a note on the back… let alone store them in a box to be found accidentally years later by curious grandchildren. I think this partly explains the recent popularity of “vintage” photo apps – by digitally adding the trappings of analogue technology – borders, scratches, vignettes, light leaks, scratch marks – you also add a level of (albeit contrived) “reality” to digital photos that isn’t inherent to the medium. Watching a slideshow is not a simple as just flicking through a series of photos – it is a shared experience, full of stories, questions, sometimes arguments over a shared history. This storytelling is part of what makes the slideshow special. It is not a passive activity of watching and remembering – it is an active experience of re-remembering (or sometimes mis-remembering) and retelling. This really struck me about the way that we look through old slides: the element of surprise. Even if we travelled to those places, lined up the viewfinder, took those photos – our memory is malleable and unreliable and forgetful enough that it isn’t until we see the slide projected on the wall that we recall the details. This is not inherent to slides of course – it applies equally to photo albums, diaries, journals, even digital archives. But there is something about the discreet nature of a group of slides arranged in a magazine that adds a level of excitement to the experience: you’re never 100% sure what comes next. Slides are old technology now – like black and white photography before it, the slide’s time has past. There will always be enthusiasts, but photographing on transparency is becoming less and less economically viable (not to say impractical). This isn’t something I really worry about – technology moves on, and I certainly wouldn’t want give up the convenience of digital photography. But perhaps there are things that we can learn from the emotional experience of the slideshow in the design of image storage and presentation technology.